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Certain creatures have abilities which can reduce a character's maximum HP, and usually if it gets reduced to 0 the character dies outright.

Suppose a HP30 PC is wild-shaped/polymorphed to a creature with 50HP, they get into a fight with a Wraith and take a few hits dealing a total of 30HP. If they failed the con saves, that PC's max-HP is reduced by 30, but it's still at 20.

An interesting, perilous situation.

Do they die instantly? Would feel a bit unfair since they're standing there with a bunch of HP. Is the damage just shrugged off like normal damage upon return? The Druid's wild-shape section is quiet on status conditions, though it's pretty blatant about HP:

When you transform, you assume the beast’s hit points and Hit Dice. When you revert to your normal form, you return to the number of hit points you had before you transformed.

That sounds like a free pass, but it would reduce the danger of these fights considerably. I've been assuming the PC becomes a sort of 'dead man walking' where if they revert the HP reduction will carry and they'll die instantly. But I'm not sure.

If that's the case, they've got a 'Crank' like situation where the PC has less than an hour (before the wild-shape/polymorph wears off) to find a Heal or Remove Curse.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I don't want to yank your chain or anything, but does Remove Curse actually get rid of the Max HP Reduction? I suppose that might constitute a curse, but I don't have a MM on me. Looking at the description in kevin.matheny's post, it looks like some sort of supernatural effect, period. And if that is the case, then Remove Curse doesn't really do much. \$\endgroup\$ – Javelin Feb 1 '15 at 19:31
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    \$\begingroup\$ Neither Heal nor Remove Curse will remove this effect. \$\endgroup\$ – Miniman Feb 2 '15 at 9:31
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When you Wild Shape/Polymorph you "assume the beast’s hit points" thus essentially creating a new, separate pool of HP from your own, original form similar to how Temporary Hit Points work, as Alexis Wilke has stated.

Damage taken in animal form doesn't affect your original form's HP unless you're dropped to 0 HP in animal form and there's excess damage. Nowhere is it suggested that max-HP reduce would work any differently. Because Wild Shape/Polymorph gives you a new pool of HP (as supported by Jeremy Crawford in the link below), only that pool is affected by the reduction.

So, using your example, if a PC has 30 HP in their original form and transforms into a beast that has 50 HP, the PC effectively has 50 HP. If the PC has their max HP reduced by 30 while transformed then they don't die as a result of having 0 HP because they're using the beast's HP and they still have 20 HP left in that pool.

As for whether the max HP reduction carries over to your original form when you revert, according to Jeremy Crawford, one of the lead designers and official rules arbiter for 5e, the answer is no:

Jonathan Longstaff
@pukunui81
@JeremyECrawford What happens when a wildshaped druid that has had its HP max reduced reverts back to normal? Does the reduction carry over?

Jeremy Crawford
@JeremyECrawford
Wild Shape—a reduction to hp maximum doesn't carry over from your beast form to your true form or vice versa.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Wow, not how I would have ruled, but I personally tend to weight toward his tweets in-game to reduce argument time. Good to know. \$\endgroup\$ – keithcurtis Jan 29 '17 at 8:16
  • \$\begingroup\$ In effect, Wildshape is "Open Druid's head, uninstall brain, store druid's body for later. Open creature's head, install brain (discard current brain if present)." When the creature's body dies, reverse the process. \$\endgroup\$ – T.J.L. Jun 22 '17 at 18:50
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As written, the attack of a Wight reduces the hit point maximum of the target:

The target must succeed on a DC 13 Constitution saving throw or its hit point maximum is reduced by an amount equal to the damage taken.

I believe the intent of the life drain ability is to introduce the risk of death, and thus, my read is that the interaction of these two would indeed result in your perilous situation, where returning to the original form would return to the original hit points, but with a Hit Point Maximum now less than 0, resulting in instant death.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I would interpret "target" as the bear/wolf/beast the druid has wild shaped into, rather than the druid. HP damage taken while wild shaped doesn't carry over to the druid, so why would Max HP Reduction carry over? The "perilous situation" could add some interesting drama, but I'm leaning toward the "free pass" approach with this one. \$\endgroup\$ – RayB Feb 1 '15 at 20:58
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    \$\begingroup\$ "Target" isn't precisely defined in the PHB, and doesn't seem to be defined in the DMG at all (at least, it's missing from the index). I think the RAW is pretty much silent, which leaves us in interpretation territory. My take is that the intent of the life drain ability is to give the risk of death, while the intent of returning to original HP when leaving Wild Shape/Polymorph is to reduce/ignore damage. Since the max HP reduction isn't "damage" per se, that leaves it unaddressed by the WS/Poly ability. Thus my interpretation. \$\endgroup\$ – kevin.matheny Feb 1 '15 at 23:44
  • \$\begingroup\$ I do think yours is a valid possible interpretation. Perhaps we should consider other effects or conditions that would or should carry over from the wild shaped form to the druid, such as paralysis, blinded, poisoned, etc. If these effects persist when shifting out of wild shape, then it's reasonable to rule that the reduction of HP Maximum remains in place as well. As a DM, however, I wouldn't want to leave my players in a "don't shift or die" type situation if it didn't add to the story/fun. \$\endgroup\$ – RayB Feb 2 '15 at 4:36
  • \$\begingroup\$ @RayB, considering other effects is a great idea for understanding the RAI. Regarding your second point, I agree. But putting a Wight into the mix introduced the risk of character death in the first place, so from a DM perspective it's not a new risk. It is a new situation, and if adding the "don't shift or you'll die" element distracted from the overall story, I'd probably leave it out. My sessions are usually emergent enough that it would be a fun addition. \$\endgroup\$ – kevin.matheny Feb 2 '15 at 13:50
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Reduction of maximum hit points applies to the druid in any form

JC says otherwise in his rulings, however, this relies on a new concept of "changing hp pools"--which is not part of the existing rules. If you prefer to play RAW and make your own rulings when needed, this answer may help you.

5e has concepts of "hit points", "hit point maximum", and "Hit Dice". Here is a description of each:

Hit Points

A creature's current hit points (usually just called hit points) can be any number from the creature's hit point maximum down to 0.

Hit Point Maximum

At 1st level, your character has 1 Hit Die, and the die type is determined by your class. You start with hit points equal to the highest roll of that die, as indicated in your class description. (You also add your Constitution modifier, which you’ll determine in step 3.) This is also your hit point maximum.

Hit Dice

Your character’s hit points define how tough your character is in combat and other dangerous situations. Your hit points are determined by your Hit Dice (short for Hit Point Dice).

Wild Shape changes only your hit points and Hit Dice

Wild Shape

When you transform, you assume the beast’s hit points and Hit Dice.

Nothing is stated about your "Hit Point Maximum", so we can safely assume that your maximum hit points are not changed.

Note that modifying your hit die or constitution can result in a change to your maximum hit points. There is no reason to think that changing con or hit die alone would remove Draining Kiss.

Example

A druid with 30hp transforms into a cow with 50 hp, and then takes a 30 maximum hit point reduction as a result of a wraith.

  • Druid before transformation: 30/30 hit points
  • Druid after transformation: hit die and con changes result in 50/50 hit points
  • Druid is hit by Life Drains for a total of 30 damage: max hp adjusts to 50 - 30 = 20. The druid is now at 20/20 hp
  • Druid reverts transformation: hit die and con change, resulting in max hp 30 - 30 = 0. The druid is now at 0/0 hp, and is dead.
  • Druid transforms back into a cow (somehow): their hit die and con change, returning back to 20/20 hp.
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An effect that reduces the druid's hit point maximum is not the same as damage, so changing forms does nothing to remove that effect. Notably, the Druid's Wild Shape only switches out the current hit points, not any modifications to your hit point maximum. This is similar to the rules for a druid affected by conditions, which carry over between forms.

So yes, your druid would be in a Crank-like situation, with only the remainder of the wild-shape form to live unless another effect can help. Here's the wraith's Life Drain (emphasis mine):

The target must succeed on a DC 14 Constitution saving throw or its hit point maximum is reduced by an amount equal to the damage taken. This reduction lasts until the target finishes a long rest. The target dies if this effect reduces its hit point maximum to 0.

While the Druid has the maximum HP of 50-30=20 in wild shape they will be fine. But when the Wild Shape expires, if the Wraith's Drain Life is still present, they would revert to their own stats and keep the Drain Life effect (assuming they haven't somehow long rested) and die with a Maximum HP of 30-30=0.


Aside: As an analogy for any Magic the Gathering players, this situation is much like trying to save a 2/1 creature from a combat with a 1/1 Infect creature (which put -1/-1 on creatures) by using a Giant Growth to give it +3/+3 until the end of this turn. The 2/1 creature would indeed live through combat and have a -1/-1 counter on it. It would be a 4/3 until the Giant Growth effect went away. Since it would still have the -1/-1 counter, it would die as a 1/0.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I question whether the MtG analogy is useful, since in that game, the rules actually define how all those effects interact. \$\endgroup\$ – Mark Wells May 20 at 23:18
  • \$\begingroup\$ While the two systems are distinct, there is something to be said about the overlap in player base, game design, and publishing company. Many principles, such as "specific beats general" and "can't beats can" are present in both rules. Of course, the GM can modify the game as they see necessary, but that doesn't change how rules interact or the general design principles. Effects only do what they say, nothing more, nothing less. \$\endgroup\$ – ryanyuyu May 21 at 12:19

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